Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a previously unknown step in early inflammation which is controlled by omega -3 and omega –6 fatty acids, potentially leading to clarification around conflicting health and diet advice on these two essential nutrients.
Ed Rainger, from the Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences at the University, has revealed how omega 3 fatty acids from dietary fish oil can block a previously unknown step in blood vessel inflammation.
Rainger says the findings of the study, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the British Heart Foundation, will open up new possibilities: “The identification of these novel mechanisms by which inflammation is regulated may allow us to develop new therapies to intervene when the process of inflammation becomes pathological rather than physiological.”
The team has discovered that a key product in the metabolism of omega -6 fatty acids is an essential signal for neutrophils (white blood cells that form an essential part of the immune system) to cross the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels, to cause inflammation.
The team also found that the migration of neutrophils could be blocked by the increased levels of omega -3 generated after the endothelial cells had been supplemented with this omega -3 fatty acid.
These latest discoveries bolster the evidence that fish oils – which contain high levels of omega 3 fatty acids - have anti-inflammatory effects in addition to other health benefits. Rainger and his team have revealed new steps in the body’s response to tackling inflammation which researchers hope will lead to designing potential new drugs to tackle severe and chronic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Rainger and his team conducted the study using a realistic, flow based system that models the process of inflammation at the interface of the circulating blood and inflamed tissue. They were then able to observe the effects of physiological levels of omega -3 and omega -6 fatty acids on the process of recruiting inflammatory blood cells such as neutrophils into the tissue. This process is regulated by endothelial cells lining the blood vessels.
Ed Rainger, said: “Our findings are very significant. They support the idea that omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory – that they are required to sustain a normal inflammatory response without which we would be prone to serious infection and tissue damage.”
Conversely, Rainger has uncovered mechanistic evidence that supports the anti-inflammatory role of omega -3 fatty acids: “We’ve all heard about the health benefits of eating oily fish, and its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, possibly due to their anti inflammatory properties, yet little is known about the normal cellular mechanisms by which omega -3 fatty acids produce their protective effects.”
Modern Western diets tend to include more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, and nutritionists believe that this imbalance may explain the rise of diseases such as asthma, coronary heart disease, cancers, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation in the body.